WASHINGTON—(ENEWSPF)–March 15, 2016. In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that Africa’s elephants may qualify for “endangered” status under the Endangered Species Act and may warrant reclassification as two separate species. These actions would highlight the plight of both species and strengthen protections.
African elephants currently are listed as one species under the less-protective “threatened” status. But recent genetic studies indicate that Africa’s elephants actually comprise two separate species — forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana). Africa’s elephants split into separate species at least 2 million years ago — about the same time Asian elephants diverged from mammoths.
Both elephant species have experienced steep population declines in recent years due to the trade in their ivory tusks as well as habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) recently released data from 2015 showing that poaching rates continue to drive declines in elephant populations, with West and Central African populations continuing to be hardest hit. Fewer than 100,000 forest elephants and 400,000 savannah elephants are thought to remain, down from a total of more than 1 million animals just 40 years ago. In just over a decade, forest elephant populations plummeted by 65 percent.
“Forest and savannah elephants are crucial to maintaining the health of their respective ecosystems, and they are important components of each of their home countries’ natural heritage,” said Tara Easter, a scientist at the Center. “But these incredible flagship species are rapidly disappearing, and they need and deserve the strongest protections available.”
Poaching elephants for their ivory tusks is the most immediate and significant threat to the species’ survival. The United States is one of the world’s largest markets for ivory, and the current rules governing the U.S. ivory trade are complex and confusing, leaving Africa’s elephants vulnerable to the illicit trade in their tusks. Protecting African elephants as endangered would tighten U.S. ivory trade regulations, prompt additional funding for elephant recovery and raise awareness of each species’ plight.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has made substantial progress in combating ivory trade in the United States,” said Easter. “But an ‘endangered’ listing would send a strong message to the international community that elephants need every protection to survive.”
Forest elephants and savannah elephants, as their names suggest, evolved in different ecosystems, with forest elephants concentrated in the forests of Central and West Africa and savannah elephants generally occurring in more open terrain throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Forest elephants, which have declined by nearly two-thirds in just 11 years, are smaller than their savannah elephant counterparts and have straighter, thinner tusks and rounder ears. They live in the remnants of the region’s rainforests and are keystone species that disperse seeds over larger ranges than any other mammal in the region, which is critical to maintaining the health of the world’s second-largest rainforest. But poaching, habitat loss and civil conflicts are decimating their populations.
Savannah elephants — the larger of the two species — are also known for their impressively big tusks. Savannah elephants are found in savannah and plains ecosystems and are also keystone species in their habitat, maintaining the open canopies of savannahs and dispersing seeds over vast distances. Savannah elephant populations have dramatically declined throughout their range, with perhaps the most notable devastation observed in Tanzania, where one of the strongest populations of 109,000 elephants dropped 60 percent to 43,300 in just five years.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 990,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.